The Captain Scott Epic page 2
"For days these two fine British seamen dragged me over the endless snows of the Great Ice Barrier. The marches were weary enough for me, lying on the sledge, but only those - and there are mighty few of them - who have dragged a sledge for 500 miles can appreciate what pluck and effort were needed by these men to continue with their overwhelming load."
Their bodies gave out before their hearts. The hour came when they could not longer cope with the weight of their burden. Leaving Lashly to protect the sick officer, Crean staggered for eighteen hours to Hut Point, where lay men and dogs and safety, and within another five hours a fast rescue party had reached the waiting and wondering Evans and Lashly. Subsequently, these two splendid fellows were decorated for their valour with the Albert Medal.
The Scott party, meanwhile, plodded sedulously on towards the Pole. Bowers was in charge of the stores and the meteorological record; Petty Officer Evans was responsible for the sledges, tents and sleeping bags; Oates, who had been in charge of the ill-fated ponies, now turned a willing hand to any type of job, and Wilson was the party's doctor. Scott himself acted up to the highest traditions of leadership. Whatever his own personal premonitions may have been, he continued to be a fountain of faith and optimism to his companions. The weather was not unfavourable, except for a piercing cold such as they had not before experienced throughout the expedition. Oates was particularly affected by it. Bowers, who was short-legged, tired a little on the march, and on one occasion Scott actually carried him on his shoulders making the gallant explanation that he wished him to see ahead and assist in the steering.
Sometimes they progressed at the rate of only nine or ten miles a day. But the certainty of success gave them new strength. On January 15, they made their last depot on the journey to the Pole, and Scott wrote: "Only 27 miles from the Pole and nine days' provisions. We ought to do it now."
Scott's fear now was not of failure. What he dreaded was that Amundsen might have beaten him to the goal. And on January 16, after a march of speed and good cheer, Bowers sighted what he believed to be a cairn. Their high spirits faltered. They stood in silence gazing at what they knew in their hearts to be the symbol of their defeat. Investigation proved it to be a black mark-flag tied to a sledge-bearer, and all around it in the snow were the marks of sledge and ski. Amundsen had won through! The Pole was Norway's.
Scott and his men did not turn away. They had duty still to do, bitter though the disappointment of defeat. The trail of the Norwegians was followed, then abandoned, observations were taken, and on January 18, one and a half miles from the position of the Pole as reckoned by Scott and his party, they found a tent still flying the Norwegian flag. Inside were fur gloves, reindeer bag, woollen socks and a number of instruments. There was also a letter from Captain Amundsen to Captain Scott, which read:
Poleheim, 15th December, 1911.
Dear Captain Scott, - As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent, please do so. The sledge left outside might be of use to you. With kind regards, I. wish you a safe return. Yours truly, - Roald Amundsen.
A formal record gave the date of occupation and the names of those in Amundsen's party. "There is no doubt that our predecessors have made thoroughly sure of their mark, and fully carried out their programme," said Scott. He left a note confirming that he had inspected the tent and its contents. A cairn was built near-by, the Union Jack was hoisted, and five haggard, almost heart-broken men, raised their arms and squared their shoulders in salute. Then, with a string attached to the shutter of the camera, they photographed themselves, late but triumphant, sad but proud, at the top of the world.
About this time Scott wrote the lines that betrayed a little of his inner feelings: "Well, we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambitions, and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging - and good-bye to most of the day-dreams!" The journey back began on January 19 - a tragic cavalcade. One blizzard succeeded another. Petty Officer Evans was suffering from frost-bite, Wilson from snow-blindness, Oates was more than ever crippled, by the cold, and Bowers had strained a muscle. Scott himself crashed into a crevasse and narrowly escaped death. Later Evans had a similar fall, suffering severe concussion from which he never really recovered. At times, between depots, there was shortage of food.
Soon Petty Officer Evans became a burden to his companions. Once the strongest man in the party, he could now scarcely pull his weight at all. The concussion and the frost-bite together sapped his strength, and he became "dull and incapable." On February 17, remarking that he had trouble with his ski, he fell behind. In vain the others awaited his return, and, going back, they found him lying in the snow. That night he died in camp, the first of the intrepid explorers to go.
The four survivors struggled on, but the dice of circumstance were loaded against them. A wind by which they could have sailed on their ski veered round and became a lashing, biting enemy. The temperature sank to "forty below." Wilson and Oates were suffering agonies of frostbite, indeed it was gradually becoming apparent that the latter was reaching the end of his endurance. Without heroics, Oates admitted to his friends that he was sinking fast, inviting their advice. "Slog on... slog on!" was the only answer they could give him.
Their only hope lay in reaching One Ton Depot, but with marches of sometimes less than seven miles a day the chances of success were receding. "I doubt if we can possibly do it," wrote Scott in his diary. "We must fight it out to the last biscuit, but can't reduce rations."
On March 3, they covered only four and a half miles. Oates was unable any longer to help in the pulling of the sledge, but limped along bravely in its train, kept going only by his indomitable spirit. Wilson, too, was suffering, but was ceaseless in his unselfish devotion to Oates, whose feet he doctored at every opportunity. Bowers was the most cheerful of all, Scott the most enigmatic.
In the tent at nights they talked of many things. Of home, of Amundsen, of the beauty and lure of the Antarctic, of the thrills and sufferings they had shared, of comrades whose loyalty they had known. Their courage was still unbroken, though they must have known the end could not be far away. Pencil in hand, Scott penned the pages of a diary that is one of history's most vital, human documents.
"Titus Oates is very near the end, one feels," wrote Scott on March 11. "What he or we will do, God only knows. We discussed the matter after breakfast; he is a fine brave fellow and understands the situation, but he practically asked for advice. Nothing could be said but to urge him to march on as long as he could. One satisfactory result to the discussion: I practically ordered Wilson to hand over the means of ending our troubles to us, so drat any one of us may know how to do so. Wilson had no choice between doing so and our ransacking the medicine chest. We have thirty opium tabloids apiece, and he is left with a tube of morphine."
Then, after an interval of three days - days which must have been electric with incident, days the drama of which can best be left to the imagination - Scott said: "We must go on, but now the making of every camp must be more difficult and dangerous. It must be near the end, but a pretty merciful end. I shudder to think what it will be like to-morrow.
Another interval of three days, the suspense of which was poignant, and then Scott wrote his immortal description of how Captain Oates walked to his death in a blizzard:
"Friday," March 16, or Saturday 17. - Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn't go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on, and we made a few miles. At night he was worse, and we knew that the end had come.
"Should this be found, I want these facts recorded. Oates's last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was willing and able to discuss outside subjects. He did not - would not - give up hope until the very end. He was a brave soul.
"This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning - yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, 'I am just going outside and may be some time.' He went out into the blizzard, and we have not seen him since. We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death; but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit - and assuredly the end is not far."
The saga was nearing its last chapter. The next day Scott himself was crippled by frost-bite in the right foot, and his two companions, Wilson in particular, were weakening. The wonder is that they found the will, as well as the strength to struggle on. On March 19, they pitched camp for the last time - only eleven miles from the depot which would be their salvation. Once again luck was against them. A relentless blizzard barred the way. Hour after hour, day after day, they lay in their tent, hoping and praying, and planning a last desperate march when the weather cleared. But the driving curtain of sleet and snow did not lift. No man could have lived for long in the teeth of such Arctic anger. Wilson and Bowers volunteered to take the risk of pressing ahead to bring back food and fuel, but such an effort would have been futile, and Scott forbade it.
"Must be near the end," wrote the great leader on the 23rd. "Have decided it shall be natural - we shall march for the depot and die in our tracks." But they were never to march again. The blizzard persisted. The tent became their final prison. Slowly their lives ebbed away. On the 29th. Scott was just able to scribble his last entry in his diary - a gallant and typical message: "Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I cannot write more."
Underneath his signature, however, he had inscribed a line so true to his character: "For God's sake look after our people." Even in death he was thinking of others.
For months they lay there in death. When, eventually, a search party found the tent, the scene inside was classic in its heroic simplicity. There was no fuel left and only scraps of food. Indomitable Scott had evidently been the last of the three to perish. He was lying half out of his sleeping bag and one arm was thrown, as if in affection or sympathy, across the body of Wilson. The latter, and Bowers, were both securely fastened in their sleeping bags. Death had come very peacefully.
Beside Captain Scott were found a "Message to the Public," and various letters, as well as his journal. The causes of the disaster, he said, were not due to faulty organisation, but to misfortune in the risks which had to be undertaken. The loss of the pony transport, the exceptional weather on the outward journey and the soft snow in the lower reaches were factors that contributed to the defeat. Petty Officer Evans he had considered to be the strongest man of the advancing party; his "astonishing failure" was a serious blow. Above all, however, Scott blamed the ruthless weather they encountered on the Barrier during their return.
"I do not think," he said, "that human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through, and we should have got through in spite of the weather but for the sickening of a second companion, Captain Gates, and a shortage of fuel in our depots, for which I cannot account, and finally, but for the storm which has fallen on us within 11 miles of the depot at which we hoped to secure our final supplies.
"Surely misfortune could scarcely have exceeded this last blow. We arrived within 11 miles of our old One Ton Camp with fuel for one last meal and food for two days. For four days we have been unable to leave the tent – the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks; we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.
"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale....". To Mrs. Wilson he wrote: "If this letter reaches you, Bill and I have gone out together. We are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end - everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others... he died as he lived, a brave, true man, the best of comrades and the staunchest of friends."
And to Mrs. Bowers: "I write when we are very near the end of our journey, and I am finishing in company of two gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He has come to be one of my closest and soundest friends, and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy. As the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end."
If this were disaster, then it was also triumph. Time may never again produce men of such breed as this, or exploration such an epic. If they failed to add the South Pole to the domains of Britain, they have left behind for others of their race imperishable inspiration. A tall cross bearing their names stands on an Arctic peak near where they sleep. And on it is inscribed also this noble tribute: "To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and not to Yield."
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